Driverless cars: the six equipment levels of connected and autonomous vehicles

Connected and automated vehicles are the future, but while the Government has announced that it expects driverless cars to be on the UK’s roads from 2021, the fact is that it will be another 15-20 years before they become a reality.

SAE International, previously the Society of Automotive Engineers, classifies automated driving features into six levels – and features in the first three levels are already available in some cars on sale in the UK.

However, level three, four and five features have yet to be incorporated into vehicles with the consensus that ‘full and unconditional automation’ – level five – unlikely to be introduced before 2035.

Nevertheless, subject to current road traffic and vehicle type approval regulations being changed there is a possibility that the first ‘driver-out-of-the-loop’ features – level three or ‘conditionally automated’ – could be deployed on cars available in the UK by 2021. Changes to the regulatory framework are already taking place with the Government last year introducing the world’s first insurance legislation for automated vehicles.

Vehicle equipment covered by level zero are categorised as ‘driver only’ features and include technology such as lane departure warning and blind spot warning providing ‘momentary assistance’ to drivers when they fail to exercise ‘proper control’ and react to road/traffic conditions.

Level one and two features are described as ‘driver support features’ by SAE International or by the Government as ‘partial automation’. Level one features provide steering or brake/acceleration support to drivers and include lane centring or adaptive cruise control, while level two features provide steering and brake/acceleration support to drivers and include lane centring mated to simultaneous use of adaptive cruise control. Park assist systems and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) are also included in those categories.

The Government is currently reviewing regulations, including the Highway Code, governing the use of higher levels of automation, which are set to be rolled out over the next decade.

The key difference between existing levels of automation – levels zero, one and two – and higher levels of automations – levels three, four and five – is that with the former a person is ‘driving’ when the features are engaged even if their feet are off the pedals and they are not steering.

With level three, four and five features – classed respectively by SAE International as ‘conditionally automated’, ‘highly automated’ and ‘fully automated’ – a person is not ‘driving’ even if they in the driver’s seat behind the wheel. While level three features may be available on vehicles from next year, the use of them requires existing ‘laws of the road’ to be changed.

Thatcham Research, the motor insurance industry research centre, is already concerned that that technology designed to ‘assist’ drivers is being misinterpreted as ‘autonomous’.

Matthew Avery, director of research at Thatcham Research, said: “Some carmakers are designing and marketing vehicles in such a way that drivers believe they can relinquish control. Carmakers want to gain competitive edge by referring to ‘self-driving’ or ‘semi-autonomous’ capability in their marketing, but it is fuelling consumer confusion. This is exacerbated by some systems doing too much for the driver, who ends up disengaged.

“Our message is that today’s technology supports the driver. It is not ‘automated’ driving and it is not to be relied upon at the expense of driver attentiveness. The driver is in control and must always remain alert. If used correctly highway assist systems will improve road safety and reduce fatalities, but they won’t if naming and marketing convinces drivers that the car can take care of itself.”

Level three features include traffic jam chauffeur and motorway pilot – manoeuvering in traffic jams and driving on motorways –  which have the capability to ‘drive’ a vehicle under limited condition but will not operate unless all required conditions are met. When systems encounter a system they cannot manage they will issue a takeover demand, handing control back to the driver.

Level four features deliver a further degree of automation with drivers only in control when the system is not in use and include technology such as: highway pilot, valet parking and enabling vehicles to operate within virtually defined or ‘geofenced’ zones in towns and cities at low speed. Such equipment is likely to be fitted to cars from around 2023.

Finally, ‘full automation’ will arrive when cars are able to ‘drive’ themselves under all conditions with no operating domain or geographic restrictions.

However, according to a new report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders – ‘Connected and Autonomous Vehicles: Winning the Global Race to Market’: “Based on current technology roadmaps and real world applications, the consensus is that full and unconditional automation (level five) is unlikely to be introduced before 2035.”

One of the key reasons for that is the so-called ‘technology challenge’ of equipping autonomous vehicles with the required features to tackle all possible ‘unusual driving situations under all driving conditions and in all environments’.

Instead, according to the report: “Level five automated driving is likely to be reached gradually as more advanced driver assistance features come to market.”

Furthermore the hundreds of millions of pounds being invested by motor manufacturers in the development of technology and its fitment to vehicles will come at a cost and drive the need for new business models and revenue streams to generate returns. They are likely to include a range of connected in-car services and products under the Mobility-as-a-Service umbrella.

The fitment cost of level three technology is estimated to be £2,500 per vehicle, rising to £5,000 for level four technology and £7,000 for ‘full’ automation.

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